Taylor’s Automatic Refresher / Mel’s Drive-In
Tearing down the genuine article and replacing it with the simulacrum
Has any decade has been so thoroughly flattened by pop-cultural memory as the 1950s? The ’70s is history: Watergate, the oil crisis, the hostages. The ’60s is ideology: the antiwar marches and the barricades and the happy idea that getting high and fucking are revolutionary acts. But the ’50s is cars with tailfins and drive-in movies and waitresses on rollerskates. The ’50s is art direction. There are no retro ’60s restaurants or ’70s restaurants. But my god are there ’50s restaurants, as if that was the only decade in American history during which people ate hamburgers.
My parents went to high school in Los Angeles in the 1950s. My mom was in a kind of gang called the Premieres—picture the name embroidered in cursive on a satin jacket—and my dad was on the cheerleading squad. When I was in LA as a teenager my friends and I would wind up our nights at Ben Frank’s, a low-slung ranch-style diner on Sunset Boulevard. My dad had eaten the same grilled cheese sandwiches in the same upholstered booths 30 years before, and I liked to think about that.
Ben Frank’s was the place Denny’s pretends to be, a kind of restaurant that seems ubiquitous until you you try to count the currently existing ones. How many restaurants in San Francisco meet the following criteria: multipage laminated menu; independent ownership; no “closed” sign? I can think of exactly one offhand—the Lucky Penny, where the food gives off the subtle but pervasive odor of despair.
A few years ago I was back in LA and a couple of us were looking for a place to eat, and we settled on Ben Frank’s. (Restaurants like this are great consensus choices, unless you’re eating with people who insist on kale three meals a day.) When we arrived, we were shocked to find that, in a Baudrillardian substitution, the diner that my dad used to patronize as an actual teenager in the actual 1950s had been replaced by a ’50s-themed imitation from the San Francisco-based Mel’s Drive-In chain. What economists call Gresham’s law—phony coins will drive the genuine article out of circulation—apparently applies to restaurants too.
If tearing down the genuine article and replacing it with the simulacrum isn’t postmodern enough for you, try this: The oversize movie stills on the walls of every branch of Mel’s aren’t from Rebel Without a Cause or The Wild One– they’re from American Graffiti, which is not a ’50s movie but a ’50s-retro movie from 1973.
Recursive-nostalgia issues aside, though, the menu is deep and the food is fine. At the Mission Street Mel’s today I got a patty melt—a combination of two diner staples, the hamburger and the grilled cheese. It was one of those agonizing forced choices that you make when you’re still weighing three options and the waitress comes by to take your order for the second time and you know that if you can’t tell her now you’ll never see her again. But it must have been one of those split-second thinking-without-thinking insta-genius decisions that Malcolm Gladwell just wrote a book about, because damn was that the right thing to order. The cheese was greasy and American, the meat was fresh, the grilled onions were sweet, and the bread was rye (a smart choice for a default bread). On other occasions, I’ve found Mel’s to be an effective go-to restaurant for a plate of meatloaf or turkey or anything else that goes with mashed potatoes. Not heroic, not gourmet—not even good enough to justify the bow ties and stupid paper hats on the waiters, if you’re feeling grumpy—but satisfactory, and open late. You can even get Waiters on Wheels to deliver it to your house. It’s too bad they’re not on rollerskates.
The ante on ’50s diners has been upped, though, by the emergence of Taylor’s Automatic Refresher as part of the Ferry Building overhaul. Modelled on a Napa Valley drive-in, Taylor’s works the upmarket angle, with a rare ahi burger and a white pistachio shake alongside the standard-issue fare. The décor is snazzier than at Mel’s: chrome tables and a huge neon sign over the grill saying EAT, and all the signage uses really handsome retro fonts to spell things like napkins. It’s the kind of place people go to just for the typography.
I had the Wisconsin sourdough burger, which comes with bacon, cheddar, mushrooms, mayo, and barbecue sauce on sourdough toast. That sounds like kind of a laundry list, but in fact it’s a very well conceived sandwich: the mushrooms, bacon, and cheese are on one side of the patty, combining into a ripe, raunchy twang, while the mayo and barbecue sauce on the other provide a mollifying sweetness. The little things are right too: there’s full two-ply bacon coverage, and the toast is sturdy enough to stand up to the weight of the ingredients while absorbing the condiments. On an unseasonably sunny day, walking the Embarcadero like a tourist, it was graspable and delicious.
The fries are another, sadder story. They look fantastic: uniformly thin and square-cut and golden, with the skin still on. The problem is with the crucial surface-to-center ratio: too much crispy outside, not enough pillowy inside. The result is dry and hard to eat in bulk. (There is no way to eat french fries besides in bulk.) Thin-cut fries allow almost no margin of error; they’re perhaps the hardest commonly eaten American food to cook properly. (The fact that Ronald McDonald can do it a hundred billion times a day is not a sign that it’s easy but a triumph of capitalism.)
Almost every movie set in the ’50s includes a scene in a diner, but sadly few movies include scenes in present-day ’50s-themed diners. There’s one in Ghost World, and there’s the famous one in Pulp Fiction. Uma Thurman orders a five-dollar shake, and John Travolta is amused by the idea of a milkshake costing five dollars, and the two of them use it as a springboard for some flirtatious banter.
Taylor’s Refresher doesn’t even have the balls to put the price tag in the title; instead, they insult our intelligence by charging $4.99. Adding injury to insult, malt costs 75 cents extra; after tax, my chocolate malted came to $6.23, which is, frankly, ludicrous. It was a pretty good milkshake, but milkshakes are the opposite of french fries: it’s not hard to make a great one. (You use premium ice cream and mix it with not-too-much milk.) It was about half the size of a milkshake you’d get at Mel’s, with no metal can to accommodate the spillover milkshake, and there wasn’t even enough malt, which is kind of a joke considering. I’d hate to see how Vincent Vega would respond to that.
You probably don’t know or care, but this column is supposedly about takeout food. (The first reader to spot two references to getting food to-go in the above wins a stupid paper hat. Void where prohibited.) As of next month, it will abandon that contrivance, and hence its name. Look for “Edible Complex” in this space in four weeks time.